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Do you ever watch those TV documentaries that follow the lives of celebrities from days gone by and ask, “Where are they now?” I must admit that I find them fascinating. Obviously, some of them are more fun to watch than others. It’s always sad to hear about those who get swallowed up by fame and lose themselves in an ocean of drugs and revelry. But then there are those who somehow manage to outlive their own fame. Many of them go on to lead perfectly normal lives with spouses and families. Others go on to do even bigger and more important things than when they were in the limelight.
My favorite example of this kind of celebrity is none other than the unforgettable Shirley Temple. Shirley was the sweetheart of the silver screen in the 1930s and is still the youngest person to ever receive an Academy Award. What most people don’t know is that, since then, Shirley Temple has had an illustrious career as an American diplomat. She was a delegate to the United Nations and the Ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia at different points in her life. All in all, I’d say that she’s had a pretty successful post-show-business career!
It’s kind of the same way with Jesus. Today, we’re celebrating Christ’s Ascension into heaven where he “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty”, according to the Apostles’ Creed. The Ascension represents the early Christian church’s way of answering the question, “Where is he now?” when it comes to Jesus. After all, they claimed that he had risen from the dead, so they had to have some kind of response ready when people asked, “Well, if he’s really alive, why then can’t we see him?” So then, the Ascension, on one level, is kind of a cheap cop-out. But, on another level, it expresses a truth that goes much deeper than mere historical fact.
The Ascension is kind of a hard topic to write a sermon about. It’s so abstract and mythical-sounding that it’s hard to pull anything useful or relatable out of it. Have you ever seen a Jewish rabbi come back from the dead and then fly off into the wild blue yonder like Superman? I can’t say that I have.
Biblically speaking, we read about the Ascension in two different places in the New Testament: at the end of Luke’s Gospel and at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles. This is more appropriate than you might think because Luke and Acts are actually related to each other. They were probably written by the same author(s). Acts follows Luke like the sequel to a blockbuster movie. The first movie (Luke) tells the story of Jesus’ life. The second movie (Acts) picks up right where the first one left off and tells the story of what happened in the early church immediately after Jesus’ earthly lifetime. The Ascension event serves as a kind of fulcrum or turning-point between these two stories. Jesus continues to be an important and active presence in the book of Acts, but, like Shirley Temple, much of his most important work takes place after he exits the spotlight.
The Ascension represents an expression of the earliest Christian belief that Jesus is more than an historical figure who lived two thousand years ago. For Christians, Jesus is a living reality and an icon of the divine (which is a fancy way of saying that Jesus shows us what God is like). This amazing person who worked as a carpenter and rabbi in Nazareth during the first century is, when seen from the Christian perspective, the king of the universe and the revealer of all that is sacred.
Jesus holds an iconic, even cosmic, status for us Christians. What does it mean for us to hail him as the ascended king of the universe who “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty”? There are many who say that, as king of the universe, Jesus is in charge of every little event that happens. It’s easy to see why people might think this when things are working out for the better (e.g. during times of prosperity, happy coincidences, and chance encounters with opportunity). But this same idea becomes a big problem when we think about things like disease, disaster, and death.
Do these events fall under the sovereign rule of King Jesus? Some say yes. They try to comfort suffering people with pithy phrases like, “God is in control” and “everything happens for a reason.” If you’ve ever heard someone say that to you in the middle of a crisis, you’ll know how much it doesn’t help. In fact, it’s downright offensive. Phrases like that do more to comfort the speakers than the hearers. It’s something people tell themselves in order to dismiss the suffering of others.
So, when I think about Jesus as king of the universe who reigns in power at the right hand of God, I don’t think of him controlling everything that happens in this world. If we believed that, we would have to blame Jesus for a whole lot of horrible things that happen.
If we believed that, we would end up asking the very question that the story of the Ascension was meant to answer: Where is he now?
When we get that cancer diagnosis: Where is he now?
When we lose a job: Where is he now?
When accidents and disasters happen: Where is he now?
When children are made to suffer and die: Where is he now?
That’s why the idea of Jesus as “the king of the universe who controls everything” is so unsatisfying for me. It leaves me asking the very question it was meant to answer.
When I think of Jesus as ruler over the cosmos, I think of him ruling from within rather than without. The throne of the risen and ascended Christ is not on some cloud in an alternate dimension, but within our own hearts. The power of Christ is the power of persuasion rather than coercion. Christ works with our free will, not against it. When we, as Christian people, freely follow Jesus and choose to live our lives in accordance with his spirit and words, the risen Christ lives and reigns in us. The spirit of Christ is embodied again in us. This is what it means for the risen and ascended Christ to rule from within rather than without, by persuasion rather than coercion.
Where is Jesus now? Jesus is in you. Christ lives and reigns in you.
When people are suffering, Jesus is in those who work to offer comfort and relief. Even when the pain is too great to be healed by human hands, the spirit of Jesus is alive in those who sit by the bedside or on the other end of the phone, holding hands, listening, and offering the comfort of companionship so that those who suffer don’t have to do so alone. That’s where Christ lives and reigns in power today and his work continues, long after he has physically left the spotlight. That’s where his kingdom comes “on earth as it is in heaven”.
We are the ones who must be Christ’s hands and feet in this world. Our risen Lord and Savior sets his throne in our hearts. Will we pledge our allegiance to his kingdom? Will we walk through our life in this world as he did: doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God?
Will we prize our citizenship in Christ’s kingdom of heaven-on-earth above every other conviction and commitment? Will we take risks that put as odds with the interests of the powers-that-be?
If we can do that, we will learn what it means to worship the risen and ascended Christ who “sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty”.
I would like to close by sharing with you a prayer that I love. It was attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, although he probably didn’t write it himself. It’s quite famous, so you may have heard it somewhere before. If you feel stirred by what we’ve talked about here today, if you find yourself asking “Where is he now?” in relation to Jesus, and you want to experience the risen Christ as a living reality and not just an historical figure, I invite you to join your heart with mine in praying this prayer:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love. For it is in giving that we receive. It is in pardoning that we are pardoned, and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life. Amen.